[This article was originally published in March 2021]
It’s an almost impossible task to rank Disney films. These are the stories that, in so many instances, helped shape our childhoods.
They’re the VHS copies we wore out from watching and rewatching them, our noses nearly pressed up against the TV in wonder.
We fell in love with these characters, dressed up as them for Halloween, and play-acted their adventures with our friends. And now, perhaps, they’re the films we’ve shared with our children and young relatives.
Any attempt to pit these films against each other, then, will be filled with favouritism and illogical decision making. But that hasn’t put us off trying. So here is our take on the top 30 Disney films of all time.
NB: this only includes films produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, so that means no Pixar films and none of those direct-to-DVD films palmed off to a smaller studio either – not that any of those would ever merit inclusion.
30. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
Although the film may feel relatively slight compared to the other titans of animation on this list, there is something so wonderfully zen about this Pooh, filtering the wise words of AA Milne through the slow, thoughtful tones of Sterling Holloway.
29. Bambi (1942)
Bambi isn’t exactly the most action-packed Disney film around, and it’s hard to imagine many people are getting a kick out of the singalong version to “April Showers”. But is there any bigger shock to the system for a child at the movies than the sudden, ruthless slaughtering of Bambi’s mother?
28. Pocahontas (1995)
Of the Disney Renaissance offerings, Pocahontas stumbles in its messy handling of history, since turning any interaction between white colonisers and indigenous people into a fluffy romance arguably whitewashes the brutal reality of what happened. But there are plenty of positives to be found, since Pocahontas was such a huge influence in Disney’s later portrayals of strong, independently minded women.
27. The Aristocats (1971)
The film may be relatively light on story (it’s basically Lady and the Tramp, but there’s an added kidnap element), but who cares, when the film features the hottest party of the entire Disney franchise? It’s true what they say: “Everybody wants to be a cat.”
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26. Robin Hood (1973)
In a way, Robin Hood is the ultimate Disney film of the 1970s. It’s a folksy, low-key entry into the canon that’s all about keeping the peace and spreading good vibes. Just ignore the fact that it recycled several pieces of animation from the likes of Snow White and The Jungle Book.
25. Zootopia (2016)
It may not have spawned the same level of craze as Frozen did, but Zootopia doesn’t deserve to become another forgotten Disney film. Although it’s as funny as you’d hope from a film about animals with jobs, it also offers parents an easy entry point to talk to their kids about racism and xenophobia. And that’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
24. Dumbo (1941)
Dumbo demonstrates the two gifts of early Disney films. There’s the capacity for moments that are pure and heartrending, as seen in “Baby Mine” (a scene that’s almost impossible to watch without welling up). Then there’s the ability to descend into the totally bizarre, as characterised by the downright scary “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence.
23. Tangled (2010)
Tangled finds fun, humour and adventure in its re-imagining of the Rapunzel tale, but what’s crucial to its success is how it anchors the entire film around a single, showstopping sequence: “I See the Light”, where Rapunzel watches hundreds of paper lanterns float up into the skies. It’s, quite simply, a beautiful piece of filmmaking.
22. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Disney’s brief return to traditional animation reminded us what had been lost in the switch to 3D animation. There’s a wonderful sense of artistry to how The Princess and the Frog renders New Orleans during the Jazz Age, especially in the Art Deco-stylised number “Almost There”. And a Disney princess working hard to make her dreams come true? That’s something to celebrate.
21. Cinderella (1950)
Although Cinderella is a central member of the Disney princesses, her film hasn’t aged quite as well as the rest of the early Disney films. There’s an odd amount of time spent on Lucifer the cat, and relatively little time spent at Cinderella’s magical soiree.
20. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
Cruella de Vil may have committed attempted puppy murder, but there’s still something irresistibly delightful about her “Patsy from Ab Fab” combination of luxury goods and frightening taste. Only Cruella could answer a simple “How are you?” with the line: “Miserable darling, as usual, perfectly wretched.”
19. Lady and the Tramp (1955)
One of several films on this list containing problematic material, Lady and the Tramp certainly isn’t a faultless film. However, given that the central courtship is between two dogs, the film boasts a surprisingly elegant love story. Not only is there the famous “Bella Notte” scene and its accidental spaghetti kiss, but the crooning Pekingese, voiced by Peggy Lee, is simply sublime.
18. Moana (2016)
Disney took the straightforward path to making a hit musical for today: they hired Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Hamilton composer and lyricist is a maestro when it comes to cranking out the hits. Opetaia Foa’i helped create the soundtrack’s South Pacific touches, while Dwayne Johnson even wheeled out some light rapping for his performance as the demigod Maui. Moana tells a culturally specific story with spirit, heart, and humour – more of this in the future please, Disney.
17. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
The Emperor’s New Groove never quite got the appreciation it deserved when it was first released, largely because, like Lilo & Stitch, it’s been tossed aside as another forgettable post-Disney Renaissance entry. Not so fast: though it may not have the epic scale of Mulan or Beauty and the Beast, The Emperor’s New Groove is a funny, endlessly quotable (“Pull the lever, Kronk!”) Disney film that – most importantly – finally let Eartha Kitt voice a Disney villain.
16. Frozen (2013)
It may be every modern parent’s least favourite Disney film, but Frozen is actually pretty great if you’ve not been forced to watch it five times a day, seven days a week. On top of a moving central story about self-acceptance and sisterly love, Idina Menzel’s rendition of “Let it Go” is a showstopper tune that demands to belted at least once at every karaoke night.
15. Peter Pan (1953)
A flight of fancy that celebrates the power of imagination, JM Barrie’s Peter Pan was always an obvious fit for Disney. The film presents an uplifting and limitless world to younger audiences, while letting the adults pretend miserable things like taxes and divorce don’t exist for a precious hour and a bit. Plus, Tinker Bell seems like a vicious gossip and the ideal person to go for a drink with, even if she doesn’t quite speak our language.
14. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
It’s the film that started it all. Although Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has since been overshadowed by its successors to some degree, it still has its fair share of magical moments. There’s the small army of birds and rodents that come to Snow White’s aid during “Whistle While You Work”, and the Evil Queen, gone full Joan Crawford, delivering her oft misquoted line: “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all.”
13. Hercules (1997)
A round of applause for John Musker, who had the idea of telling the Greek myth of Hercules through a chorus of gospel singers. They are, without a doubt, the true heroes of this film, thanks to the insanely catchy “Zero to Hero”. That said, Megara’s definitely a close runner-up for the title, since her “I’m a damsel. I’m in distress. I can handle this” routine made her the go-to Disney princess for the cool kids.
12. Mulan (1998)
Let them deny it all they want, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Nineties kid who hasn’t secretly put “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” on their workout playlist. The whole film, in fact, is a power anthem, while Mulan’s one-woman feminist revolution makes her one of those rare multitasking princesses who can do a lot more than just win over a handsome prince.
11. The Jungle Book (1967)
As the very last film to be produced by Walt Disney himself, The Jungle Book marked the end of an era for the studio. The film captures the kind of easy charm that made Disney’s work such a huge part of so many childhoods in the first place. As Baloo eases into “The Bear Necessities”, it feels very much like someone’s come to gently pat you on the shoulder and tell you everything’s going to be alright.
10. Aladdin (1992)
Aladdin may have plenty of tricks up its sleeve, but it deserves its place in the upper echelons of Disney films purely on the strength of Robin Williams’s performance as Genie. The comedy actor recorded over 18 hours of additional improvised material for the film, and the finished product is one of the greatest existing tributes to his manic energy as a performer, alongside his vast gallery of impressions.
9. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Another magnificent adaptation of complex source material, Disney’s take on Alice in Wonderland doesn’t get lost in Lewis Caroll’s maze of wordplay, but cooks up its own delightful nonsense. Alice gets read to filth by a patch of garden flowers, Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter oozes moneyed eccentricity, and there is a general psychedelic vibe to the whole affair. Alice in Wonderland was initially a flop, but there’s no denying its status as a cult classic now.
8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is easily the most adult Disney film ever made. There’s religious hypocrisy, lust, genocide, prejudice, violent misogyny, infanticide, and corruption – take your pick! Although Disney certainly used a little creative license in adapting the 19th century Victor Hugo novel (there are no singing gargoyles in the original, sadly), it’s surprising how fluently its central themes have been translated without threatening the film’s PG rating.
7. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Although it was technically released in the dip that followed the Disney Renaissance, Lilo & Stitch is a highly underrated entry that deserves to sit among the classics. Few Disney films speak to real experiences like it does. Look past the alien intruders and Stitch’s more unusual characteristics, and you’ll find a reminder that family is defined only as those who love and support us, no matter where we find them. It’s a simple but pure message, elevated by a cast of characters who act and speak like those we recognise in our own lives.
6. Pinocchio (1940)
This is the Disney film that comes closest to a David Lynch fever dream. Putting “When You Wish Upon a Star” – the song that best captures Walt Disney’s dream – aside for a moment, let’s remember just how much of a surrealist nightmare the Pleasure Island sequence really is. “Be virtuous or you’ll be turned into a literal donkey” was quite the threat for an America only recently freed from the grip of Prohibition. It’s a weird and wonderful entry from Disney’s early years.
5. The Little Mermaid (1989)
We’re free to question Ariel’s decision to trade her voice so she can chase after a cute guy she met only once, but she will always remain the most loveable dinglehopper-collecting weirdo around. Ariel’s unquenchable curiosity is what makes this aquatic tale so charming, second only to the fact its villain was inspired by the legendary Divine. Plus, “Under the Sea” is such a party tune.
4. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Sleeping Beauty is Disney’s most beautiful film, thanks to the fact artists John Hench and Eyvind Earle drew heavily from medieval tapestries, Renaissance art, and even Japanese prints. It gives the feeling of actually flipping through a storybook, as Aurora wanders a forest that looks as if it’s made entirely of stained glass. And, truly, has there ever been a Disney villain as deviously elegant as Maleficient?
3. Fantasia (1940)
One of Disney’s boldest and most avant garde films, Fantasia is simply masterful in its concept. A musical education for many young viewers, the film pairs classical pieces with short animated stories, each wildly different and inventive in its own right. Although Mickey’s appearance in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has had a life of its own outside of the original film, anyone who grew up with Fantasia is probably more likely to remember the nightmares Chernabog gave them – the Night on Bald Mountain sequence is unlike anything else in the Disney canon.
2. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
If you need a sign of exactly how impressive a piece of filmmaking Beauty and the Beast is, reflect on the fact that a love story between a woman and a buffalo-bear-man is the first animated film ever to have been nominated for an Academy Award. And this is nearly two decades before The Shape of Water brought interspecies romance to the ceremony. This is truly “a tale as old as time”, with a lush Alan Menken score (with lyrics by Howard Ashman) and a smart, relatable heroine in Belle.
1. The Lion King (1994)
Produced at the height of Disney’s Renaissance in the 1990s, The Lion King is an epic testament to what animation can achieve as a medium. Can it match the power of its source material, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Well, when Rafiki lifts an infant Simba up to the skies, as an entire kingdom of savannah creatures bows in servitude, all soundtracked to “Circle of Life”, you can’t help but feel momentarily convinced. A film of stunning vistas, heartrending tragedy and memorable musical moments, there’s no doubt that The Lion King deserves its place as one of the greatest animated films of all time.
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